I HAVE BEEN WRITING FOR MANY YEARS, and have learned some things, not only from my own long hard work but from a writing class I ran for three years. The class consisted of all kinds of people: prosperous and poor. Stenographers, housewives, salesmen, cultivated people and servant girls who had never been to high school, timid and bold people, slow and quick ones. This is what I learned: everybody is talented, original and has something important to say. And it may comfort you to know that the people you might suspect of not having talent are actually those who write very easily and glibly, without inhibition or pain, skipping gaily through a novel in a week or so. Yet they are also the ones who did not seem to improve much, to go forward. You cannot get much out of them. They give up working and drop out. But they, too, are talented underneath. I am sure of this. It is just that they did not break through the shell of easy glibness to what is true and alive underneath – for most people must break through a shell of timidity and strain.
In my view, it is fine to work for money, to work to have things enjoyed by people, even very limited ones; but the mistake is feeling that the work, the effort, the search is not the important and exciting thing. One cannot strive to write a cheap, popular story without learning more about cheapness. But enough; I may very well be getting to raving.
NOW I AM GOING TO TRY TO TELL YOU WHAT THE creative power is, how you can detect it in yourself and separate it from your nervous doubts and checks, and how you can distinguish it from mere memory. For memory and you can distinguish it from mere memory, tor memory cu you have learned) can smother creativity very easily. When we hear the word “inspiration” we imagine something that emerges like a bolt of lightning, that with a rapt flashing of the eyes, tossed hair, and feverish excitement a poet or artist begins furiously painting or writing. At least I used to think sadly that that was what inspiration must be, and never experienced a thing that was one bit like it.
I LIKE THE GREAT RUSSIAN WRITERS BEST OF ALL – Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky. I think this is because they seemed to feel that truthful writing is more important fancy words and sophisticated skills. Personally, I don’t like writing where the package is fancier and more important than the contents. Perhaps that is 5 why the Russians translate so well, because the important thing to them is what they felt, saw, and thought. Life is more important to them than literature.
Chekhov wrote this letter to his brother: “You have only one defect…your extraordinary lack of education…Educated people in my opinion must satisfy the following conditions: 1. They respect a man’s personality, and therefore are always tolerant, gentle, polite, yielding. They do not make a riot about a little hammer or a lost rubber; living with others they do not make a favor of it, and when leaving do not say. ‘It is impossible to live with you!’ They excuse noise, cold. over-roasted meat, and witticisms, and the presence of other people in their house. 2. They are compassionate, and not only with beggars and cats, for they grieve in their soul for what the naked eye does not see…They do not sleep for nights so as to help their parents pay for their brothers’ studies, to buy clothes for their mother.. 3. They respect other people’s property and therefore they pay their debts. 4. They are pure in heart and fear a lie as they fear fire. They do not lie, even in trifles. A lie is humiliating to the listener, and t debases the speaker before his own eyes. They do not show off; they behave in public just as they behave at home; they do not throw dust in the eyes of humbler people, and do not make up soul-to-soul conversations when they are not asked. Out of respect for other people’s ears they are often silent. 5. They do not belittle themselves to arouse the compassion of others. They do not play on the strings of other people’s souls so that they shall sigh over and fondle them. They do not say: ‘People do not understand me! Because all this produces a cheap effect; it is vulgar, musty, false. 6. They are not vain-glorious. They do not care about such false diamonds as acquaintanceship with celebrities, shaking hands with the drunks, the raptures of a well-met fellow at the salon, popularity in public houses…Doing a farthing’s worth, they do not walk about with their briefcases as if they had done a hundred rubles’ worth, and do not boast of having been admitted where others are not admitted.
But today we are apt to say of a man: “Oh. you must not pay any attention to his personality; it is his ideas that are the important thing.” But I think – as did Socrates and Michelangelo and many others – that the ideas of a meager and dishonest personality are corrupt somewhere. And most importantly, if someone has good ideas but is not good himself, there will be no infection; nobody will be affected, enkindled or changed by his ideas.
As I read it now I am surprised and elated at myself: If you also keep a diary, you will be both pleased with yourself and surprised. We all see and feel things sparklingly, but usually it is dulled or lost before it gets on paper.
But this is the point: everybody in the world has the same conviction of inner importance, of fire, of the god within. The tragedy is that either they stifle their fire by not believing in it and using it, or they try to prove to the world and themselves that they have it, not inwardly and greatly, but externally and egotistically, by money or power or more publicity. Therefore you should all work to hone your skills because it is impossible that you have no creative gift. In addition, the only way to make it live and increase it is to use it. Third, you cannot be sure that it is not a great gift.
But if (as I wish) everybody writes and respects and loves, then we would have a nation of intelligent, eager. impassioned readers; and generous and grateful ones, not impassioned readers; and generous and grateful ones, not mere critical, logy, sedentary passengers, observers of writing, whose attitude is: “All right: entertain me now.”
To sum up – if you want to write:
1. Know that you have talent, are original and have something important to say.
2. Know that it is good to work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it. It is easy and interesting. It is a privilege. There is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.
3. Write freely, recklessly, in first drafts.
4. Tackle anything you want to – novels, plays, anything. Only remember Blake’s admonition: “Better to strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”
5. Don’t be afraid of writing bad stories. To discover what is wrong with a story write two new ones and then go back to it.
6. Don’t fret or be ashamed of what you have written in the past. How I always suffered from this! How I would regurgitate out of my memory (and still do) some nauseous little lumps of things I had written! But don’t do this. Go on to the next. And fight against this tendency, which is much of it due not to splendid modesty, but a lack of self-respect. We are too ready (women especially) not to stand by what we have said or done. Often it is a way of forestalling criticism, saying hurriedly: “I know it is awful!” before anyone else does. Very bad and cowardly. It is so conceited and timid to be ashamed of one’s mistakes. Of course they are mistakes. Go on to the next.
7. Try to discover your true, honest, untheoretical self.
8. Don’t think of yourself as an intestinal tract and tangle of nerves in the skull that will not work unless you drink coffee. Think of yourself as incandescent power, illuminated perhaps and forever talked to by God and his messengers. Remember how wonderful you are, what a miracle! Think if Tiffany’s made a mosquito, how wonderful we would think it was!
9. If you are never satisfied with what you write, that is a good sign. It means your vision can see so far that it is hard to come up to it. Again I say, the only unfortunate people are the glib ones, immediately satisfied with their work. To them the ocean is only knee-deep.
10. When discouraged, remember what van Gogh said: “If you hear a voice within you saying: you are no painter, then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working.”
11. Don’t he afraid of yourself when you write. Don’t check-rein yourself If you are afraid of being sentimental, say, for heavens sake, be as sentimental as you can or feel like being! Then you will probably pass through to the other side and slough off sentimentality because you understand it at last and really don’t care about it.
12. Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. “I will not Reason & Compare” said Blake; “my business is to Create.” Besides, since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable.